Toxic rule fouls DEQ's clean air celebration

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week kicked off a "Year of Clean Air" to celebrate 50 years of protecting Michigan residents from air pollution.

Just days before launching the celebration, however, the department issued a draft rule that would substantially weaken the air quality program and put at risk the health of Michigan residents-particularly low-income families and communities of color.

Michigan has come a long way in preventing air pollution. Since the state's Air Pollution Control Act went into effect in 1965, we have seen a significant decline in chemicals being emitted. Before this act went into effect, Grand Rapids designated days when burning cars was not permitted-not because burning cars creates ghastly pollution and is a crazy thing to do, but because people wanted to dry their clothes outdoors without having them ruined by the toxic smoke.

In addition to stopping the obvious "black smoke" sources of pollution, the DEQ has overseen a regulatory program that has dropped emissions of dangerous chemicals to much lower levels. Mercury emissions, for instance, have dropped from 30,000 to 7,000 pounds a year. Michigan has over 40 monitoring stations that actively track how much pollution is in the air, from things like ozone and sulfur dioxide to different sizes of particulate matter.

Michigan also has one of the most robust air toxics permitting programs in the country. We're among the handful of states that regulate air emissions of all toxic chemicals. Before issuing a permit to an industrial facility, the state uses computer modeling to estimate the health impact based on the chemicals to be emitted, their quantity and where they will fall. To be on the safe side in protecting public health, the department assumes that chemicals with unknown potential human health impacts are highly toxic.

Under the draft rule, however, DEQ would remove approximately 500 chemicals from the list of 1,200 chemicals regulated by the state. A chemical's impact on human health is a function of both its toxicity and its quantity, but the proposed rule removes quantity from the formula, allowing unregulated emissions of the 250 least-toxic, non-carcinogenic toxic chemicals. Though these chemicals are less toxic in small quantities, they can still pose a danger when emitted beyond a certain threshold. It also deregulates 250 chemicals for which no health data are available. The proposed rule would eliminate the modeling requirement for those 500 chemicals.

With Michigan's current regulations, any facility that emits toxic chemicals into the air can tell members of the local community that their health is protected, since we currently err on the side of caution in assuming unstudied chemicals are toxic. This new rule would take away that certainty, as we no longer will require modeling of these chemicals, which may be very toxic. In essence, the rule treats Michigan families like guinea pigs.

It's MEC's position that companies using chemicals-and reaping the financial benefits of that use-should bear the burden of demonstrating they are safe before emitting them into the air we breathe. Instead, the draft rule transfers to those living next to a factory the risk that the chemicals emitted can cause cancer or have other negative health consequences.

As several studies have shown, those living in the affected areas tend to be low-income residents and people of color. Neighborhoods in highly industrialized areas already suffer more than other communities from the health effects of pollution. Those same families will face the greatest health risks if the proposed deregulation goes forward.

As a public comment period for this draft rule opens in the near future, we hope all those affected will weigh in against this proposed rule, as it runs counter to all that has been achieved to improve Michigan's air quality in the past 50 years. There is room for compromise on this rule, including setting thresholds for the least-toxic, non-carcinogens, instead of simply deregulating them.

The DEQ's Air Quality Division has made our air much safer to breathe, and their celebration is deserved. Still, the department should be focused on continuing to improve Michigan's air quality. The proposed air toxics rule is a step backward-one that threatens to make the Year of Clean Air a whole lot dirtier.


Photo courtesy Boston Public Library via Flickr.

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